A Guide to Researching the History of a House

By HomeAdvisor

Updated August 10, 2020

Old house on a cliff.

If you live in a house that’s more than a few decades old, it’s natural to wonder about its history. Who built it, and when? Who lived there before you moved in? You might even wonder about the evolution of the home’s structure, as well as any changes made to it over time. If you’re thinking about starting a new project – or making one of the five major home repairs your house typically needs as it ages – you may find it especially useful. First-time home buyers may also want insight into where they’re investing their nest egg.

Additionally, it’s beneficial to know about the past if you need help hiring a quality contractor. You may need assistance with historic home preservation and restoration, or specialized work that you won’t likely see in newer homes. If you’re interested in brick painting, restoration or clean-up, it’s a good idea to research and contact top masonry repair contractors near you. Make sure they have experience working on older homes. If you have historic or fragile glass in your home, contact stained glass companies near you for assistance.

The opportunities for improvement are endless, and understanding your home’s past is a great place to start. The first step? Using online resources and public records.

Internet Resources

There are a few different ways to uncover your home’s past. These range from general, to geographical, to region-specific. 

Search Resources

Use tax records, newspapers, commercial search applications, or title histories to find information on previous owners. Census records are particularly useful in locating a multitude of family information and learning more about those who occupied your house. You can also learn a lot about the legal issues surrounding property ownership. This includes the drawing of property lines and even initial land settlement. Subscription services can provide an easy method of gathering information.

Former Owner Research

  • Historic American Newspapers: The American newspaper collection contains 154,205 titles from 1690 to the present. Newspapers provide an excellent way to trace former owners, as many newspapers print records of property transactions.
  • Historical Newspapers: This guide provides state-specific newspaper archives available online and at no cost.
  • New York City Building Information Search: Look up an address in New York City to learn more about the property.
  • NETROnline: Search public records to find out more about the people who once owned your home.

Property Legal Issues

  • National Center for State Courts: Court records may turn up filings related to the history of your property.
  • Legal Land Descriptions in the USA: Original land distribution fell into two categories: Indiscriminate Metes and Bounds and the Federal Township and Range System. Categories include definitions and references.
  • Surveying Units and Terms: Surveying units of measure and surveying terms can help you understand the details of property records.
  • Understanding Property Deeds: A deed is the documentation needed to transfer ownership of a property, and learning details about the deed can tell you a lot about the circumstances surrounding the sale of the house.
  • The National Map: The Public Land Survey System is a method of describing and subdividing land in the U.S. The article describes the PLLS, its history, and commonly used terms.

Geography and Maps

  • Fire Insurance Maps: Thousands of maps made for fire insurance companies give details of cities and towns across the country.
  • Geological and Topographic Maps: The USGS provides geological and topographical maps in digital form from as early as 1884. The maps provide a basis to compare changes over time. You can also hire a Land Surveyor to compile property surveys of your land. Topographic survey costs vary depending on the size of your land, the rate charged by the surveyor, and other terrain factors.

Census Records

  • Census Data: Search through census records from 1790 to 1940 that contain birth places and dates, family information, marriage statuses, occupations, and street addresses.
  • Census Records: The National Archives maintain census records that include information about families and where they resided.
  • About Census Records: The government keeps Census records confidential for 72 years. This means you can’t find recent information.
  • United States Census Records: Find full, free information from census records collected all over the country here.

Subscription Internet Services

  • RealQuest Property and Ownership Information: RealQuest contains a property ownership database that includes former owners, lot descriptions, valuations, and sale dates.
  • American County Histories: A historical source for books, newspapers, and periodicals, this collection provides local and family history resources.
  • ProQuest Digitized Newspaper Archives: Available at most major libraries for free and allows you to look through more than 35 million pages of archived newspapers.
  • Ancestry.com: Learn about former owners of your home through birth, death, and marriage certificates and census, church, military, and other vital records.
  • MyHeritage Search: Free search of historical records. Subscription required to see results.
  • Genealogy.com Articles and Forums: Genealogy research tips and available here. Search by homeowner name for genealogy articles on immigration, military service, religious records, wars, and other details.
  • Genealogy and Family History Records: Newspaper archives typically record births, marriages, and obituaries. Available as a subscription or use for free at many libraries. Resources date back to the 1600s.
  • SiteXPro Property Data Analytics: Offering a pay-as-you-go option, this website contains property information for 99.9 percent of the households in the U.S. Any desired real estate data is available.

Historical Societies

Historical societies help people to view and understand their heritage. Historical societies possess a wealth of human and documented knowledge and are often eager to share what they know to help others learn about the past.

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